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US military on relief mission

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A US Navy aircraft carrier battle group is heading from Hong Kong to the shores of Sumatra. The first of many Air Force C-130 cargo planes has landed in Indonesia with a load of blankets, plastic sheeting, and medicines.

As the death toll from southern Asia's deadly earthquake and tsunami waves soared yesterday, Washington put long-standing concerns over politics and human rights violations in Indonesia aside and mobilized its military for what promises to be a complex relief mission.

The Bush administration regards Indonesia -- the world's most populous Muslim nation -- as its key Southeast Asian ally in the war on international terrorism and the disaster is an opportunity to demonstrate the humanitarian capabilities of the US military.

But officials said saving lives is more important than scoring political points. "Considering the pressing need, whatever we do couldn't be fast enough," said Charles Silver, spokesman at the US Embassy. "We have not had trouble getting our people in."

Silver said the first US cargo plane, a C-130 flying out of Kadena, Japan, touched down in the Sumatran city of Medan yesterday with a load of relief supplies and body bags for the estimated 80,000 dead in this country alone.

The plane also brought an advance team of about a dozen troops who will assess the situation and determine the logistics needed for the US relief operation.

Complicating the problems caused by the devastation, Sumatra's Aceh Province, nearest the epicenter of Sunday's mammoth earthquake, has long been restricted to foreigners because of a decades-old separatist insurgency.

But the sheer scale of the disaster has prompted Indonesia's government to open its borders, and the Americans are part of a giant overseas military force pouring into the region.

Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Pakistan are among the countries that are providing some kind of military aid.

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